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Music / The National

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The National are a Post-Punk Revival band from New York, primarily known for their laid-back, yet melancholy sound. The band consists of Matt Berninger (singer / songwriter), Aaron Dessner (bassist / guitarist / keyboardist), Bryce Dessner (guitarist / keyboardist), Bryan Devendorf (drummer), and Scott Devendorf (bassist / guitarist).

They started out with a small underground following in 1999, producing mostly So Okay, It's Average albums and EPs, until their 2005 album, Alligator which turned them into critical darlings. From there, their albums continued to get better. In 2007, their album, Boxer was featured on many "Best of the Year" lists, and in 2010 their fifth album, High Violet won them further critical attention. The album has even been in competition with Arcade Fire's The Suburbs and Beach House's Teen Dream in year-end charts. In 2011 they provided a song featured in Portal 2 at the request of the developers and performed "The Rains of Castamere" for the 2012 season of Game of Thrones. The golden run then continued in 2013 with the release of their sixth album Trouble Will Find Me. This one only continued their increasing popularity, and the band would go on a brief hiatus to produce side projects like EL VY, Pfarmers, and LNZNDRF, all with a more psychedelic bent. This experimentation would feed into their next album, Sleep Well Beast, preceded by the surprisingly upbeat "The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness." They returned in 2019 with I Am Easy To Find, produced by director Mike Mills.

Unlike many bands in the Indie/Alternative movement, they don't rely on of happy/poppy or aggressive hooks to keep their music going. Instead they focus on sombre, tug-at-your-heartstrings type of music. Matt Berninger's Baritone vocals provide very bittersweet lyrics accompanied by the band that keeps a lush sound spiraling in the background. Many people claim that their music helps them through depressing times in their lives and actually uplifts them. Other people tend to call them too melancholy and dismiss them in the same manner as Radiohead gets dismissed.

Other musical ventures by the band include EL VY (Matt Berninger, Ramona Falls, Menomena), Big Red Machine (Aaron Dessner, Justin Vernon), Pfarmers (Bryan Devendorf, Danny Seim, Dave Nelson), LNZNDRF (the Devendorfs, Ben Lanz and Aaron Arntz). Matt Berninger also has a solo career, while Bryce Dessner is a notable composer of music.

Not to be confused with the CBC's flagship evening News Broadcast.


  • The National (2001)
  • Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers (2003)
  • Alligator (2005)
  • Boxer (2007)
  • High Violet (2010)
  • Trouble Will Find Me (2013)
  • Sleep Well Beast (2017)
  • I Am Easy to Find (2019)
  • First Two Pages of Frankenstein (2023)
  • Laugh Track (2023)

The National contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Album Title Drop: The title Trouble Will Find Me is derived from a lyric in "Sea of Love" ("If I stay here, trouble will find me").
  • Ambiguous Gender:
    • It's never explicitly stated if the Joe in "Sea of Love" is a man or a woman, since the name could go either way. The album's liner notes use "Joe" instead of "Jo", suggesting a man, but they also use "child" in place of boy or girl which keeps it ambiguous.
    • "Rylan" is confirmed to be genderless.
  • Arc Symbol:
    • Children in "I Am Easy To Find". There's "I remember a kid in the water" (So Far So Fast), "I'm a child in that way, dear" (Hey Rosey), the "child at the border" (Not in Kansas), "everybody loves a quiet child" (Rylan).
    • Also, water in "I Am Easy To Find". There's the wordless "Underwater" and "Her Father in the Pool", "underwater you're almost free" (Rylan)...
  • Armor-Piercing Question:
    • In "Daughters of the Soho Riots".
    How does anyone know how they got to be this way?
    • "Rylan" actually has several:
    Is it easy to keep so quiet?
    Is it easy to live inside yourself?
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks".
    Leave your home
    Change your name
    Live alone
    Eat your cake
  • Band of Relatives: Type 1: Aaron and Bryce are twins, and Bryan and Scott are brothers.
  • Basso Profundo: Matt is generally a baritone, but sometimes he borders on this when he gets low enough on songs like "Demons", "Runaway", "The Rains of Castamere" and "Bloodbuzz Ohio".
  • Beard of Sorrow: Matt seems to sport one of these when it's not a Perma-Stubble.
  • Breakup Album: Trouble Will Find Me.
  • Call-Back: Happens quite often considering Matt is the primary writer for the band, and how his lyrics are very self-referential. For example, "Slow Show" on Boxer references the title lyrics to "29 Years" all the way back on the first album.
  • Careful with That Axe: Matt did this occasionally on their earlier albums. It's especially effective in "Slipping Husband", as it's a quiet song where Matt suddenly erupts towards the end with a truly jarring scream. "Abel" basically has Matt do this for its duration. In addition, live performances of "Available", "Squalor Victoria", "Mr November", and "Graceless" also tend to feature a great deal of this.
  • Concept Album: Although none of the band members have officially offered any confirmation, the lyrics of Trouble Will Find Me suggest that the album might be the story of the dissolution and aftermath of a relationship between a man named Joe and a woman named Jennifer.
    • According Matt Berninger, Boxer is one of these as well. The underlying theme of the album seems to be about growing into adulthood, and the anxieties that come with it.
    • Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers plays this straight.
    • I Am Easy To Find plays with this.
  • Cool Shades: Both Devendorf brothers don a pair of red-tinted sunglasses.
  • Darker and Edgier:
    • High Violet is noticeably darker in apparent subject matter and tone than anything the band's previously put out, the lightest song being "Terrible Love" and the heaviest being "Runaway".
    • Trouble Will Find Me goes even further. The album's lyrics and tone are unrelentingly bleak throughout and it's the quietest album by the band yet. While it is beautifully-composed and written, it is by no stretch of the imagination a happy album.
    • Sleep Well Beast plays with this on the whole; it has some of their poppiest songs ever, but also some of their most heartbreaking lyrics.
    • I Am Easy To Find also plays with this. It's one of the most "political" and, specifically, topical of The National's albums. "Not In Kansas", for instance, has:
    Ohio's in a downward spiral / I can't go back there anymore / Since alt-right opium went viral
    My shadow's getting shorter, I'm a child at the border / Oh, godmother, you can't ignore us / There isn't anybody left to love us
    I'm leaving home, and I'm scared that I won't have the balls to punch a Nazi. Oh, father, what is wrong with me?
  • Deadpan Snarker: Matt. Sometimes it spills into the lyrics as well.
  • Downer Ending: "Hard to Find" functions as one for the narrative of Trouble Will Find Me. The protagonist (Joe), has the opportunity to pursue the person that he has spent the album reflecting on (presumably Jennifer), but passes it up due to his belief that being together is an impossibility, thereby resigning himself to continue yearning for her and contemplating their past together.
  • Drunken Song: "All the Wine", "Bloodbuzz Ohio", and countless others.
    • "City Middle" is a darker take, which has references to Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, mentioning "I wait for the click/But it doesn't kick in." "The click" being the hopes that alcoholism will erase all the troubles that sober life brings, but it tragically never works.
    • "Don't Swallow the Cap" also functions as a darker take on this type of song. The track's narrator is clearly in a terrible state of drunkenness, sadness, and disorientation, but he oscillates between denial and panic throughout the song. Similarly to "City Middle", it also references Tennessee Williams. In this case, its title refers to the manner in which Williams died.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: They were originally more of an alt-country band with their first two albums before their gradual transition to indie rock with Alligator and Boxer, and eventually art rock and baroque pop with High Violet onward.
  • Echoing Acoustics:
    • On High Violet, everything reverberates. EVERY. SINGLE. INSTRUMENT.
    • Trouble Will Find Me does it even MORE. Matt has admitted that when he's coming up with lyrics, he puts whatever the Dessners set him into Garage Band, adds reverb to it, and basically sings until he comes up with some words.
  • Epic Rocking: "Son", "A Reasonable Man (I Don't Mind)", "Runaway", "England" and "Humiliation" all exceed five minutes, while "Cardinal Song" exceeds six.
    • The live version of "About Today" from The Virginia EP is eight minutes and twenty-five seconds long.
    • One of their most memorable concerts was when they played "Sorrow" live on repetition for a record time of six hours non-stop.
    • The title track of Sleep Well Beast extends well near seven minutes.
  • Fading into the Next Song: "I Need My Girl" into "Humiliation" on Trouble Will Find Me
  • Free-Handed Performer: Matt Berninger claimed in an interview that he has no knowledge in music theory and can't even play the tambourine right.
  • Indecipherable Lyrics: Matt's Perishing Alt-Rock Voice is so perishing that he sometimes sounds like he just got done Drowning His Sorrows before he recorded the song. For an example, see "Blank Slate".
  • Immediate Self-Contradiction: Several. Notably, "If you want to be alone, come with me" and "Change your mind, and nothing changes" from "Rylan".
  • Long-Runner Line-up: The same five guys since 1999.
  • Loudness War: Despite their critical acclaim, they've received a bunch of criticism for their mastering. Clipping is especially apparent on the climax of "Slipping Husband" and the ending of "Murder Me Rachel." Most of their songs are limited/compressed to the point where "90-Mile Water Wall" is as loud as "Abel."
    • Unfortunately this also results in what could have been very dynamic mixes like "Karen" becoming crushed and drowning out the vocals.
      • It's for this reason the vinyl releases sound entirely different; instruments recorded at different levels remained so, so guitars and drums that were overbearing on the CD releases became smaller side notes. Albums up to Alligator in particular benefit from their vinyl releases since they lack the distinguishing reverberated vocals found on later albums. Bizzarely enough, the vinyl versions don't really fix the clipping issues associated with the CD versions either, they just sound more dynamic because the levels are different.
    • For some reason averted with the self-titled's "29 Years."
  • Lyrical Cold Open: "Cardinal Song"
  • The Movie: Two; there was one about the making of Boxer called "A Skin, a Night" and there was another, more important one called "Mistaken for Strangers." This one is about the National's lead singer's brother, Tom, following the band on tour and it documents the relationship between Tom and Matt.
  • New Sound Album:
    • Alligator drastically changed the sound from a sort of country-folk mix into an aggressive, more rock-based sound.
    • Also, Boxer, which added processing to Matt's vocals to make them stand out more, removed backing vocals entirely, put more emphasis on the drums and generally slowed the songs down from Alligator's more frantic pacing.
    • High Violet. Rather than experimenting with different rock structures and styles, the band opted for a very methodically played out and slow-burning indie rock style.
    • Trouble Will Find Me synthesizes the sounds of their preceding two albums. Similar to High Violet, it's slower and more layered than most of their work, however, it greatly dials back the maximalist production that defined several tracks on the previous album ("Terrible Love", "Bloodbuzz Ohio", "Lemonworld", among others), in favor of a sparser approach that emphasizes the drums and vocals, akin to the one on Boxer. Furthermore, the album also places more emphasis on unconventional time signatures and brings the backing vocals to the forefront once more.
    • Sleep Well Beast has a larger emphasis on full-band playing and electronic experimentation, striking somewhat of a balance between the sparseness of the last album with the gritty songwriting of their early albums.
  • Precision F-Strike: Both "Demons" and "Slipped" makes effective use of this trope.
    • "Mr. November." I won't fuck us over/I'm Mr. November/I'm Mr. November/I won't fuck us over!
  • Perishing Alt-Rock Voice: Practically omnipresent in their work, especially from Boxer onward.
  • Questioning Title?: "Where Is Her Head"
  • Recycled Lyrics: A particularly stunning example in "Slow Show", where Matt reuses his lyrics from "29 Years" to conclude the former. It's in a way a nod to how far they came up to that point, as Boxer was essentially the album that broke them into mainstream status. This, of course, would later be cemented by High Violet and Trouble Will Find Me.
  • Rockers Smash Guitars: Matt tends to break his microphones, stands and other stage equipment because he tends to get really invested emotionally in his own performances. He pours out his frustrations on-stage and it apparently helps keep him mentally healthy off-stage.
  • Self-Deprecation: A staple of Berninger's lyrics.
  • Self-Titled Album: Their debut.
  • Shout-Out: Trouble Will Find Me contains references to The Beatles, Nirvana ("Don't Swallow the Cap"), Elliot Smith ("Fireproof"), Morrissey ("Pink Rabbits") and Violent Femmes ("Hard to Find").
  • Soprano and Gravel: One of the rare examples where the vocals sound more gritty than the instruments, and also with a male vocalist. He frequently utilizes very quiet, subdued, and heavily reverberated tenor and falsetto parts in the backing vocals creating a similar effect to this.
    • This is also quite prevalent on several tracks on Trouble Will Find Me. Berninger functions as the Gravel, while the Soprano part is fulfilled by several different backing vocalists.
  • Spoken Word in Music: "Walk It Back" on Sleep Well Beast samples one of the staffers (reported to be Karl Rove, who denies being the quote's originator; Lisa Hannigan provided the vocals) of the George W. Bush White House.
    "People like you are still living in what we call the reality-based community. You believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality. That's not the way the world really works anymore. We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you are studying that reality - judiciously, as you will - we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors, and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do." Apparently that was written on a whiteboard with a red sharpie in the Roosevelt bedroom, sometime around Christmas 2007. Yeah, so I can't stay..."
  • Stealth Sequel: A possible interpretation of "You Had Your Soul With You" (written by Berninger's wife, Carin), to "Don't Swallow The Cap".
  • Triumphant Reprise: The ending of "Slow Show" borrows a lyric from an earlier song titled "29 Years" ("You know I dreamed about you for 29 years before i saw you"). However, whereas the original lyric was sung in a melancholic and weary fashion, the reprised version is considerably more emotive and hopeful sounding.
  • Uncommon Time: "Demons" is in 7/8 time. "I Should Live In Salt" is in 9/8. "Hard to Find" is in 5/4.
    • "Fake Empire" is in 3/2.
  • Word Salad Lyrics: Yep. Matt has even stated himself that he just lines up clever phrases he made up in his head.
  • You Can't Go Home Again: Seems to be one of the Running Themes of I Am Easy To Find: